The Rittenhouse Rules

It was inevitable that the Kyle Rittenhouse would become a political avatar--because that's what media does

The predictable but worrisome responses to the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict last week caused me to dig up an old talk about the politics of media and rethink it for our political moment.

As usual, please

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I have been mulling one question since the verdict was handed down in Kenosha: when did Kyle Rittenhouse cease being a person and become an avatar? On the right, Rittenhouse has become a symbol of righteous, white masculinity; on the left, he became the embodiment of organized white supremacy. Of course, both of these things are, in a larger sense, true if what you are talking about is media representation.

But if you are talking about a real person, a person of no accomplishments who is insignificant except to his family, the man he wounded, and the families of the men he murdered, these assertions bear no relation to reality. Unfortunately, the project of making controversial figures into avatars—figures who embody a set of ideas or concepts that are larger than themselves—is now so seamless and automatic that we are now stuck in a set of repetitive conversations about someone who doesn’t really exist, that have little to do with the facts of the case.

What I do know: reducing Rittenhouse to an avatar creates two harmonious, entirely opposite narratives from a dissonant, uncomfortable story. It’s a story, not about one but four aggressive white men, two of them armed with deadly weapons, none of whom should have been where they were or done what they did. Despite the fact that three of those men were allegedly there to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake and one to defend businesses from looters, there were no innocent people in that scenario.

Yet partisans fueled by dramatic media headlines are determined to create a “right” and a “wrong,” heroes and villains. These are the Rittenhouse Rules: whenever a young white man takes what he has learned on the internet literally, he will become a symbol of Everything That Is Wrong With The Other Side And Right About Us.

The Rittenhouse Rules, as I understand them, work like this:

  • No one who is carrying or fires a gun is ever innocent; and

  • Everyone who carries, or fires, a gun is always innocent.

  • White supremacy explains everything; and

  • White supremacy explains nothing because it doesn’t exist.

The Rittenhouse Rules, fueled by irresponsible hot takes in the media, are designed to make us stupid because they reassure us that all we need to know is everything we know already. And if the facts don’t necessarily fit what we need to know? Then we announce that the system is corrupt, and we need not respect it—even as we expect the other side to obey the laws and institutions that we approve of.

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It isn’t an accident that people like Kyle Rittenhouse become avatars: it is a necessary element of our current political atmosphere. There is, for example, the desire to make Rittenhouse a hero in a way that will create political profits, a conservative grift that dates back to the killing of John Birch by Chinese Communist forces in 1945 and the creation of the reactionary society that bears his name in 1958.

Not surprisingly, conservative and white supremacist organizations have supported Rittenhouse’s defense all along, aided by crowdfunding. Unfortunately, as Paige Williams pointed out last June in The New Yorker, a fair amount of that money disappeared along the way.

Supporting Rittenhouse has also now become another branding opportunity for the GOP Lunatic Caucus. Since the verdict, three Republicans offered him congressional internships for which he is educationally (and probably temperamentally) unsuited. “Kyle Rittenhouse would probably make a pretty good Congressional intern,” Congressman Matt Gaetz (FL-1), who is himself under investigation for sex trafficking, told Newsmax. “We might reach out to him and see if he is interested in helping the country in additional ways.”

Because Kyle Rittenhouse has already helped everyone so much? I ask you: name three things that he did that actually helped anyone.

As usual, The Onion, a satirical “news” site, captures the absurdity of what it means to turn a real person who did an awful thing into an avatar of right-wing virtue. “Kyle Rittenhouse Sentenced To 45 Years Of CPAC Appearances,” one headline blared when the jury was still out.

Yet many on the left and in the left media have done little better. “When we marched in Ferguson, white supremacists would hide behind a hill near where Michael Brown Jr. was murdered and shoot at us,” Representative Cori Bush (MO-1) tweeted, implicitly supporting one unfounded view that Rittenhouse went to Kenosha intending to kill Black people. “They never faced consequences.” Of course, this has nothing at all to do with what happened in Kenosha—nor have I ever heard this before. But I did see multiple tweets over the weekend from people who seemed to know so little about the case that they believed Rittenhouse had, in fact, carried out that task, killing and wounding three Black men when none of the men Rittenhouse fired at were Black.

Then there were the headlines. “Kyle Rittenhouse Evades Consequences, Found Not Guilty On All Counts,” read a Jezebel headline, accompanied by a picture of Rittenhouse with a smile playing around his mouth, one that I am almost sure was not taken on the day the jury delivered the verdict. “Kyle Rittenhouse Has Gotten Away With Murder—as Predicted,” read the headline in The Nation. Accompanied by a photo of Rittenhouse peering over his shoulder (again, smiling, as if he is taking none of this seriously), the accompanying hot take by Elie Mystal is a mish-mash of outrage porn posing as “the truth.”

“The verdict is not surprising if you are familiar with how the criminal justice system works for white people,” Mystal writes (fact: the verdict is not surprising given the admittedly deplorable laws of the state of Wisconsin.) And while Mystal’s criticism of the judge’s behavior was bizarre and prejudicial, the prosecution had the burden of showing that Rittenhouse was the aggressor and failed to do that, perhaps because it wasn’t true and showing up with the weapon in the first place was not the crime.

But for Mystal, too, Rittenhouse is just an avatar for white supremacy. As he writes,

No doubt, some people will express shock at the verdict over the next few days. But Rittenhouse’s freedom is not a “miscarriage” of justice—it is our white justice system working as intended. This system is designed to free people like Rittenhouse: white vigilantes who kill to maintain the best interests of whiteness.

Now it is one thing to say that Black men and women are convicted of felony crimes disproportionately: that’s true. It’s also true that Black people are far more likely to be wrongfully convicted, particularly of murder, than accused white people. But it is also true that white people accused of crimes are three to five times as likely to be wrongfully convicted as Hispanic people and that 57.8% of the people currently being held in federal prison are white.

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So please explain to me how all those white people ended up in the slammer if the justice system is designed to set them free.

Understand: I am not saying that incarceration and Black incarceration, in particular, are not the civil rights issue of our generation. They are. White supremacy is real, as is anti-Black violence, as is anti-Black police violence. If these forms of structural injustice are to be dismantled, making the Kyle Rittenhouses of this world into avatars for the failure of social justice will not be how we get there.

And the worst thing about the Rittenhouse Rules? The noise level is so high, so garbled, and so untruthful that any sober assessment of how those men ended up in a fight that left two of them dead can’t happen. So a conversation that might be useful to both activists and local leaders as they try to strategize how to stage and manage protests that are not infiltrated, and attacked, by people in love with violence—will never happen.

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Short takes:

  • At Axios, media writer Sarah Fischer writes about what all of us who run a digital platform know: Americans are exhausted by the news and are pulling back from it. What Fischer calls “the attention recession” is actually a return to normal as the pandemic-fueled spike in media consumption subsides. Although markers are still above what they were in 2019, broadband and streaming subscriptions are slowing, and visits to news sites decreasing. (November 22, 2021)

  • You go, girl. Kristina M. Johnson, the new president of The Ohio State University, has promised a shift to a debt-free college education at the flagship within ten years. “Instead of offering students federal direct loans as part of their financial aid packages, the university will use a combination of grants, internships, and opportunities to assist with research,” writes Eric Kelderman of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Like those European socialist countries, the four-year degree would not be free but would redeploy university (and I suspect, private) money to paid work and internship programs and will be available to middle-class kids who currently take out loans. (November 19, 2021)

  • Genius or nuts? Texas Governor Greg Abbott is lining up shipping containers on the banks of the Rio Grande as his own DIY “wall” against undocumented migrants. As Uriel J. García of The Texas Tribune reports “The shipping containers are the latest technique the state has deployed to halt migrants at the border. In September, Texas state troopers created a miles-long wall of patrol vehicles along the riverbank in Del Rio after more than 15,000 asylum-seeking migrants, most of them from Haiti and other parts of Latin America, gathered under the international bridge there.” Does it work? I doubt it. But despite being ugly as sin and occurring in the midst of a container shortage, it sure is cheap. It also demonstrates that unlike Trump (who Abbott may challenge in the next presidential primary), he says things—and then does them. (November 18, 2021)